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002: Alan Stokes explores the way that we can become more potent while on the telephone

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In this episode, I have the opportunity to speak with Alan Stokes. Alan is a journalist and a Lifeline counsellor. Listen carefully as Alan explores the way that we can become more potent while on the telephone. He shares tips and tricks for becoming more effective when listening on the phone and really getting to the heart of what is being said. We also talk about authenticity and how to be deeply empathetic to the dialogue as it happens.

We explore the role of judgement, and how it takes away from the impact of the conversation. Alan grew up in a beach family, surfing and body surfing. He always loved the escape and the silence of surfing. He also used to be a heavy drinker, when he first became a journalist. He has also struggled with mental illness which has helped define his world view and the importance of being listened to.

Today’s Topics:

  • Asking to have a talk instead of telling sad people to cheer up
  • The difference between sympathy and empathy
  • How reflection is giving back to someone what they have told you in meaning
  • How Alan asked for professional help in his forties
  • Problems have to be solved by the person with the problem
  • How conversations are heightened during phone calls
  • The importance of silence and the true mark of trust
  • Minimal encouragers or reminding the person on the line that you are there
  • Avoiding lecturing or making someone feel interrogated
  • Empowering people with open questions, such as how does it feel
  • How “why” questions can be loaded with judgement
  • Physicality and sitting in an open position and looking interested
  • Getting into the right mindset and being ready to listen
  • How Alan’s journalistic background has served him at Lifeline
  • Importance of bringing out the unsaid

Links and Resources:

Transcript

Episode 02: Deep Listening with Alan Stokes

Oscar Trimboli:

Deep Listening… Impact beyond words.

Alan Stokes:

Why questions are loaded with judgement quite often. Not always, but 90% of the time. Why do you do that? Why are you asking me in that tone of voice? It’s not a positive non-judgemental approach. It’s an approach that somehow comes with baggage.

Oscar Trimboli:

In this episode, we have the opportunity to speak to Alan, who spans two distinct domains of listening. One as a journalist and one as a lifeline counsellor. Listen carefully as he explores the way you can become more potent while you’re on the telephone. He provides lots of amazing tips and tricks to become more effective when you’re listening on the phone.

He also explores the importance of authenticity in listening and being deeply empathetic to the dialogue that presents itself. He explores the role of judgement and how that takes energy and impact away from the conversation.

Let’s listen to Alan.

Oscar Trimboli: 

I’m delighted today to be joined by Alan Stokes on today’s episode of “Deep Listening: Impact beyond words.” We explore what happens when you call Lifeline, an organisation that’s dedicated to assisting people in their most difficult times.

Alan, we always start by introducing you to the audience.

Alan Stokes:    

Well, Oscar, I grew up first of all in Coogee near the beach in Sydney and then in Avalon, near the beach in Sydney and then in Terrigal near the beach on the central coast. You might see there’s a pattern there. Yeah, we were a beach family. We surf, we bodysurf. But it was a tough family. I had one sibling and we copped a lot. My mum copped a lot. We had dysfunction and my dad was a drinker, gee! my dad was a drinker, my dad was a drinker. And yeah, we had some pretty tough times. But we also had some great times and we learned a lot.

I think it was always good to get in the surf and get the silence, the escape from the clatter, from the problems, from the troubles.

Oscar Trimboli:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), so talk us through your journey as a journalist.

Alan Stokes:  

I snuck in, I was lucky. I was still drinking heavily. We’d go for lunch and have five schooners, which is five almost pints of beer at lunchtime. I moved on to other newspapers in Australia and overseas. I worked in London, I’ve been a Tokyo correspondent. I’ve done a variety of things but, through the whole time I’ve struggled with mental illness and alcoholism and that’s informed throughout my worldview, my view on listening to people. And when I was at my lowest ebb, when I was in journalism in Sydney, I had suicidal thoughts and they grew and grew and I was going to kill myself. And I rode on a bus one day in Clarence Street in Sydney and I was ready to kill myself. I got home, burst into tears and I said, “I can’t do this anymore.” Luckily, I found some help. But for months before I hadn’t been listened to. The signs were there.

Oscar Trimboli:

You said, for a couple of months you weren’t listened to before you got onto that bus. What were people doing and not doing that could have helped you to be heard?

Alan Stokes:  

I would get into a lift and I would be very sad. The world was around me. I’ve often described it as like being locked in a box and someone would say, “Stop looking so morose. You’re always looking sad. You’re such a downer.”

And it’s very hard to respond to that. So, a simple question and my answer may well have saved me from that point.

Oscar Trimboli:

What would have been an insightful question somebody could have explored with you in the lift at that time?

Alan Stokes:   

“I notice that you’re down quite a lot, Alan. What would you think about maybe having a chat with me about it? I want know how you’re going.”

Oscar Trimboli:

What do you think holds people back from that very simple question?

Alan Stokes:

Many times, it’s people are too busy in their own lives. And really, people are not good listeners because many people are the centre of their own universe. That’s understandable. If you ask someone, are you okay and they say, “No.” What do you say back?

And the answer is, you don’t say a lot. Like, you listen and you listen acutely to what they say. And you sit with them while they talk. There are particular types of questions you can ask, approach things in a certain way, reflect content and feelings of those people. So that they understand that they’re being listened to, that their message is getting through and that you’re not judging them. What you’re doing is being, if you like, an empathetic shoulder. Someone who’s sitting with them during their pain.

 Oscar Trimboli:

Mm-hmm (affirmative) I’d love to pick up on two things that you said during that dialogue. One is the role of reflection and the second one was your ability to be an empathic or empathetic listener.

There’s quite a distinction between sympathy and empathy and yet most people move into the role of sympathy.

 Alan Stokes: 

I think it’s a fairly clear dichotomy. When there are two people in a conversation and one person’s going through a struggle, sympathy is about the person who is hearing about the struggle. It’s all about me, me, me. I am feeling bad for you. That’s a selfish thing. It’s well-meaning, sometimes it can be helpful. But, basically, it’s about: I need to feel sorry for you because of what you’re telling me.

If you think about that deeply, that doesn’t help the other person. What helps the other person is empathy. And that is being there with them. It’s about them.

So our aim at Lifeline is to offer empathy, which means: it’s about them. It’s not sympathy about me and what I think and what I feel about, oh how bad it is for someone else to go through a break up, or a mental health issue, or whatever. It’s about them and what we can do to support them to get through their crisis and that’s where refection’s crucial. Because reflection, by definition, is you giving back to someone else what they’ve just told you either in content or in broader meaning or in feeling.

In the one action of reflecting you are acknowledging that you’ve heard. You’ve really heard.

Oscar Trimboli:

Your journey into being part of the Lifeline organisation and being on the telephone. Let’s continue your story that gets us there.

Alan Stokes: 

Yeah, I had some pretty tough times and when I was suicidal I was working for the media organisation. And then I simply wasn’t heard and I need to go and get help. And I went and got help and I knew, for me, I needed time, in fact, I needed silence. I needed silence away from the clatter of life, because no-one in the clatter of life was listening. My wife was. A couple of close friends were, but again, even then, they felt incapable of being there with me.

So, I got professional help and that’s a big call for someone in their, his forties, who’s got five kids. He’s always strong, he’s always drunk to excess but still managed to survive. And it was a huge, huge humbling experience to have to go and ask someone to, for help. But someone did listen and I got professional help and I worked through it and I worked out my own solutions and that’s really important because, in the end, going back to sympathy and empathy: With sympathy, you will try to solve someone else’s problems for them and impose upon them a solution that you personally think is right for them.

Now, something about Lifeline is that, we believe that every individual is the expert in his or her life. If you think, the logical extension of that is, if they are the expert in his or her life, who is best to solve that problem. It’s not me because it would be my solution to their problem. It has to be their solution.

So, that strength-based approach is very important.

Oscar Trimboli:

I’m simply curious. In our modern world today, we get a lot of distance between people in work environments and even in social contexts. Meaning there is increasingly more and more things that we do over the telephone, as an example. What advice would you give to people out there who spend their time on the phone?

Alan Stokes:    

I often think of, if someone loses one sense the others are heightened. And it’s like that with a phone call. If you take away the vision, if you take away the environment, the sensory feel of where you’re sitting, what the room’s like. If you take all that away, it actually focuses your mind very much on exactly what’s being said. And certainly, the basic one for me, is to be able to match the tone and pace of what someone’s saying.

So if I come on to the phone like this and I’m talking like this and I’m talking like this, not only will I try to slow the person down, but I’ll, “Okay, I’ll talk like this, so you’re feeling like this, you’re feeling like this, maybe we should talk. How about we slow down a bit and we just, I need to clarify in my own mind, just… I’m a bit concerned, what’s worrying you at the moment?” And you can see the change in tone and pace.

A few other things that are important: silence is crucial. Silence is golden. I always say that the true mark of trust is to be able to sit in a car and drive and not say anything to the person next to you because you trust them. That they’re not going to judge you, they’re not going to say anything silly. You just sit there and enjoy the silence. And there are times on the phone where that is absolutely essential.

Now, there are times as well where you need to just remind the listener that you are there and we call them Minimal Encouragers. So, someone says to me, “I’m in a really bad way.” I could leave a silence for five seconds or I could go, “Mmm … uh-hu … mmm, I’m hearing you.” And that then becomes a silence, it’s a constructive silence. Because you’ve re-validated that you’re listening. And you’re listening closely. So silence is really important.

We talked about reflection before. Reflection allows you, not just the validating of someone’s views or their feelings, but it also allows you to make sure and check in that what you’re listening is what’s intended. So, “I can hear that you’re really down because your wife’s left you. You’re feeling really sad and you’re concerned about your children’s future.”

And then if the listener says, “That’s exactly it.” You’re on the right track and you can move the conversation forward. If the listener says, “Oh, not so much that, it’s something else.” Then you empower the listener to take the conversation the way they want to do.

Now, when you’re on the phone it’s absolutely essential to avoid lecturing someone, or talking at them, or making them feel like they’re interrogated. But when it comes to truly hearing someone’s story, truly deep listening, you need open questions. You need to empower someone to tell you what they want you to hear. So the use of the word “how?” “How does that feel for you?” “How have you been able to cope?”

“What have you been doing that’s helping you through this? What would you like to see happen next?” “What, if you had a magic wand, would next week look like for you?” “What’s your big idea and your big dream to solve this problem?”

Oscar Trimboli:

And an example of an open-ended question sometimes that falls flat is the why question.

Alan Stokes:     

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Why questions are loaded with judgement quite often. Not always, but 90% of the time. “Why do you do that?” “Why are you asking me in that tone of voice?” “Why did you decide to stay with your abusive wife or husband?” “Why didn’t you do this?”

As you can see in all of those questions there’s an implied judgement, an implied negativity. It’s not a positive non-judgemental approach. It’s an approach that somehow comes with baggage.

Oscar Trimboli:

People I’ve worked with over the telephone talk about how they’re matching energy and tonality and pacing in language. But there’s also a physicality to the telephone. Some people stand and walk around while they’re on the telephone. Some people are deliberate in sitting while they’re on the telephone. I notice some people that I’ve worked with, when they’re talking to children will actually kneel down to get down to what would be the equivalent of their eye level. Some people stand up for certain periods of time. What advice would you give people about the role of the physical settings in the context of listening to people on the telephone?

Alan Stokes:   

It’s a really difficult one because people live busy lives, they’ve got different circumstances. But, if at all possible, this is what Lifeline believes, if you can be sitting in a position where you’re open, as you would in person. I’m sitting here with you now, straight back, feet flat on the floor, not crossed arms, open, looking as though I’m actually interested in what you say. And I am. You need to have that same approach on the phone. Because your body language will be reflected in your voice. So I would recommend at any time, not to be standing, not to be walking around, not to be distracted. If you want deep listening and you want to get the benefits of that you need to be in the space and that means focused and it means caring and being curious of what the person wants to, has to say. And in that way, I think, you find the conversation comes more easily because, the person will respond in kind and that’s what we want.

Oscar Trimboli:

Right. And in preparing for the shift at Lifeline, preparing to listen. Talk me through the process of how you go from your day-to-day life to step in the door, to step into the seat that you will pick up the phone call from and how do you get ready to listen?

Alan Stokes:     

It’s an interesting question because, for a lot of people, it’s quite daunting. There’s a lot of stress. It’s really important that you, as a Lifeline telephone counsellor, that you look after yourself. We call it, self-care. So, it’s a matter of having boundaries. At Lifeline, we’re actually quite funny people, we have jokes beforehand, we get on really well, there’s a lot of camaraderie and collegiality. But when you walk into that office it’s quite closed off. It’s like a little hermetically sealed bubble. And that’s a positive because, as soon as you walk into the bubble, you know you are focused, but most important there’s actually physical things you do. One is, you log into a computer. Once you’re in there you’re sort of, that’s the preparation. And then you put on your headset. And that very act of putting on a headset gets you in the mindset.

But then you hit a button and it’s called the ready button. You hit that ready button, you only hit it when you’re ready to listen. And when the light goes on on the phone and there’s someone on the other end, bang, you’re in this little world and it’s you and the caller. Everything else is irrelevant. And that’s how it should be in every conversation. Because if you don’t give someone that total focus and attention, you’re disrespecting them.

Oscar Trimboli:

With this unique combination and your background as a journalist, what do you think you bring as a strength that you learned in the journalistic field around listening to your work today?

Alan Stokes:  

Journalistic questioning comes in two, well actually there’s three types. One is to elicit information you already know. So, closed questioning, it’s like a barrister. “You were at the scene of the crime and you meant to do that, didn’t you?” “I put it to you that this, this, this.” And the answer’s going to be yes or no. So those closed questions is when you know the information and you just want the answer to validate it.

Another one is when you’re searching for an angle for a story, it’s an opening question. If I ask an open question: “What’s the problem at the council this week?” The answer could come, “Oh, it’s to do with legal problems, it’s to do with the elections, it’s to do with rate payers and their concerns, it’s to do with health and safety.” It opens the conversation up, it gives me a chance to pursue all sorts of different angles in a story.

So the third one, which is the most important thing, is that recognising through your questioning and through your senses what’s being unsaid. And the unsaid questioning technique is the most important one, not just in journalism but in Lifeline. To be able to bring out what is unsaid is really, is really a skill and it’s something that requires the focus, that requires the questioning technique. It requires the reflection of meaning. So that if someone tells you something, and it doesn’t quite make sense, you need to be able to say, “Okay, from what I’m hearing, this crisis is happening to you in a way like this… Is that correct?” And often that will open up areas that are unsaid.

Sometimes people will be irrational in their crisis. Their rational thinking brain has left them, temporarily. So you sometimes have to gently challenge them. And that often brings up unsaid information. So, they might be thinking that the world’s ending because they’ve lost their job, blah, blah, blah. Then they might have ignored that, in fact they’ve got qualifications that are in demand this week, or next week and that in fact they’ve got a chance of doing something that’s more exciting in their life. And then being able to say, “Well what’s stopping you getting from here to your dream?” And often that’s the unsaid thing. What’s stopping people? If you can get to a point where they’ll tell you, what stands between them and relief, you’re halfway there.

Oscar Trimboli:

How will those questions around exploring unsaid be different in journalism? Because I think, for a lot of our listeners, when we talk about the fourth level of listening, which is listening to the unsaid, they struggle.

Alan Stokes:  

I think we’ve missed out the idea that, the unsaid is often unsaid because people don’t think anyone could give a stuff, that no-one could care. “Ah, look, no-one cares about that, I’m not going to talk about that normally.” Which gets back to something I mentioned before. Deep listening requires an authentic curiosity. You have to be genuinely interested in what the person thinks, what they have to say, what’s happening to them. What contributions do they think they can make to your organisation, or to your friendship? Basically, you’ve got to trust them, genuinely trust them, to have really great ideas. And that’s where I think there’s a difference between true leadership and leadership by checklist. I think we’d all be better in every organisation and every family if we were authentically interested and curious about what other people might do.

Oscar Trimboli:

For those people listening who might want to contact Lifeline, what do you recommend they do?

Alan Stokes: 

They ring 13-11-14 in Australia. There’s also a Lifeline website: Lifeline.org.au. If you’re in crisis and you are suicidal or if you’re feeling that you’re threatened in any way, physically or verbally, then you ring triple zero, that’s really important.

Oscar Trimboli:

Alan you’ve spanned a great horizon of the power of listening. Provided some really practical examples and you’ve brought great meaning to the importance of being authentic. And it was a delight watching you today, while we were speaking I have the privilege of watching you while you were talking, not just listening to you. To bring to life these powerful ideas for those who are listening today. So, on behalf of the audience and me, thank you.

Alan Stokes: 

Thank you very much and good luck.

Oscar Trimboli:

It’s hard for me to summarise Alan’s interview. He took us to so many different places. But the thing that consistently came across was Alan’s integrity. He spoke from a place of deep authenticity. And in watching him while I was interviewing, there was never anything that was incongruent between what he was saying, what his eyes were showing me and what his body energy was showing.

I felt I was in the presence of quite a calm and powerful listener. Alan’s experience across both journalism and as a crisis counsellor helped me to understand the roles that assumptions and judgement play in removing power from a conversation.

I think we’d all agree that the way he took his time to use those very simple ‘How’ questions and what questions, are things that we can take into our own listening in our daily lives.

How many open questions are you practising with when you’re listening, versus the closed questions?

It was Alan’s insight into the judgement that sits behind the questions starting with ‘Why?’ That was the most powerful concept I took out of today. And I’ll be much more careful to be conscious of when I use questions beginning with why.

Thanks for listening.

 

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